With Heavy Gentrification And A Not So “Post-Racial” Society, Washington D.C. Still Needs “Emancipation Day”

April 21, 2015  |  


D.C. just celebrated its 153rd Emancipation Day on April 16, commemorating the end of slavery in the nation’s capital.  The very first celebration of this day had come roughly nine months before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and annual festivities took place in the streets of D.C. from 1866 to 1901.  Thanks in large part to the efforts of resident Loretta Carter Haynes, the parade was revived in 2002 and has been held every year since then.  Now a legal holiday, Emancipation Day’s importance, marked by floats, a free concert, and fireworks, means even more in an increasingly gentrified city.

As a native Washingtonian, I always took pride in knowing that I hailed from a place lovingly known as Chocolate City: the birthplace of go-go music and the home of Chuck Brown; a hub of higher education housing the campus of beloved HBCU Howard University; and a city led and strengthened by Black politicians like Eleanor Holmes Norton and former Mayor Marion Barry (whose personal demons overshadowed his record).  D.C. is Civil Rights’ stomping ground.  And in D.C., Blackness is not otherness. Blacks are the majority, the norm, and thriving.

However, whenever I go home during the holidays, I barely recognize certain neighborhoods.  Many have been transformed in order to accommodate the influx of predominantly white, young professionals.  As a whole, that translates to luxury apartments and condos, soaring rent, hipster trendiness, dog parks, and Whole Foods (special shout-out to all things yoga).  Places where I rarely saw non-brown faces – U Street, Florida Avenue, Adams Morgan, Petworth – have soared to popular heights and are now visited and inhabited by more whites than ever.

outPlease do not misconstrue my observations as an “us versus them” type of mentality.  I am fully aware that demographics ebb and flow from decade to decade. None of this information, after all, is particularly new, as we have heard similar stories in cities throughout the country. However, this marked change reflects a much bigger issue that deserves attention: wealth disparity and the pushing out of a people who have long been marginalized. This includes low-income and long-time D.C. residents. What makes this different than the white flight that occurred during the great migration and beyond and when Blacks left the South and moved to northern cities is a matter of choice and mobility.  Many white families willingly left when Black populations moved into neighborhoods once devoid of racial diversity.  But when you are low income or middle class, if you are being priced out of your own neighborhood, that is a lot different than packing up and leaving on your own accord.

Then there’s the reality that more amenities, better roads, and safer streets have, at times, only been provided when communities become less Black and more white.  Neglected neighborhoods are seen in a new light by developers hungry to service the needs of a new clientele.  These sorts of things can strengthen neighborhoods, but why this change happens so quickly when Black citizens are less prominent in the overall equation is of concern.  Is gentrification an issue of voting and showing up at the polls?  Is it about income and education? Discrimination? The questions and answers are endless and need to be discussed.

So what does all of this have to do with Emancipation Day?  Emancipation Day marks more than the ending of slavery in D.C.  It highlights the history and heritage of the Black experience in a city the entire world knows and looks to.  That cannot be overlooked or undersold.  Black people – our contributions, our achievements, and our very existence – have been forgotten and erased from history one too many times. Clearly, we are not going anywhere.

The acknowledgment of Black neighborhoods and communities becoming more gentrified is not meant to deter or disavow white people, or any other people for that matter.  We all want to co-exist peacefully, equally and fairly and to positively shape our communities.  In this age where we openly recognize the growing racial, economic and social disparities that exist in D.C. and beyond, as well as the problems of cultural appropriation and the abundant flaws of the term “post-racial,” Emancipation Day matters, just like Black Lives Matter.  It is another means by which we can pave the path to lasting freedom.

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